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Purnell Arrives With Strong Credentials, But It Won't Be Easy

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Ken Tysiac, Columbia (S.C.) State
April 7, 2003 CLEMSON — As Terry Don Phillips began the search that landed Oliver Purnell as Clemson's basketball coach, a blast from the school's past rocked the program. As Auburn coach Cliff Ellis prepared for the NCAA Tournament in Tampa, Fla., he told reporters that Clemson's was the most difficult job in the ACC. Ellis, who coached the Tigers to their only first-place ACC finish (in 1990) in the 50-year history of the conference, said that when another Clemson coach wins the ACC, Ellis will “kiss the guy's ring” because he understands the difficulty of the task.

A week later, first-year athletic director Phillips spoke about confronting that perception of Clemson as he talked to candidates about replacing Larry Shyatt.

“People recognize that Clemson has had some inconsistency in their history with regard to being good, solid competitors year-in and year-out,” Phillips said, “and certainly that raises a red flag.”

Phillips was able to overcome that red flag to land a proven winner in Purnell, whose teams at Dayton won at least 20 games in each of the last four seasons.

Purnell understands the difficulties of winning at Clemson better than many candidates. He grew up watching the ACC in Berlin, Md., and was an assistant at Maryland under Lefty Driesell and then Bob Wade in the late 1980s. He visited the Clemson campus in the late 1990s when Rick Barnes was coaching the Tigers, and he interviewed for the job in 1998 before the Tigers hired Shyatt. But the lure of coaching in the ACC and the commitment of Phillips impressed Purnell enough to get him to take the job.

“It's a great school,” Purnell said. “There is no question about it. It's a great conference. It's a broad-based athletic program, and I think it's a sleeping giant in basketball.”

Except for occasional upsets over ranked opponents, that giant spent a lot of time snoozing during Shyatt's tenure. The coach was 70-84 over five seasons, with no NCAA Tournament appearances, as Clemson struggled through growing pains while renovating a home arena at Littlejohn Coliseum that had been woefully inadequate.

But Shyatt's three most recent predecessors — Barnes, Ellis and Bill Foster — all had their share of success at Clemson. Barnes took the Tigers to three straight NCAA Tournaments before leaving for Texas. Ellis directed Clemson to first place in the ACC in 1990 and to eight postseason tournaments in 10 seasons. Under Foster, the Tigers reached the NCAA Tournament West Regional final in 1980 before losing 85-74 to UCLA.

“It's a tough job,” Foster said, “but it can be done because it's been done before.”

Despite Clemson's three straight ACC Tournament play-in game appearances, there is reason for hope in both the near and distant future. Shyatt never won more than five ACC games in a season, but he left the Tigers with decent talent.

Although Clemson loses first-team All-ACC guard Edward Scott, who was a senior last season, four starters return. Among them are promising 2002-03 sophomores Chey Christie, Olu Babalola and Sharrod Ford.

“There are a couple of nice players there,” said former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, who worked a handful of Clemson games as a television analyst last season. “The kid Ford is pretty good. They've got some decent players coming back.”

The Tigers have good balance between the post and the perimeter. Ford, senior Chris Hobbs and athletic rising sophomore Akin Akingbala give Clemson enough talent to be solid inside. Three-point shooting ace Shawan Robinson and recruit Vernon Hamilton could fill in nicely with Christie and Babalola in the backcourt.

Most importantly, facilities improvements should help level the playing field for the Tigers in recruiting. Former Clemson guard Bill Harder said the program couldn't compete in recruiting with the top ACC schools before the school spent $32 million to improve Littlejohn.

“When you had Littlejohn the way it was, and you're trying to sell Clemson compared to North Carolina? Come on,” Harder said. “Let's be realistic.”

Harder said it is more realistic for Clemson to expect to sign quality recruits now that Littlejohn's improvements are nearly completed. Littlejohn has hand-carved wooden lockers, a new weight room measuring 3,860 square feet and new seats with improved sight lines. The practice gym in the arena's new annex is a bit small, with just one full court, but several Clemson players said the entire facility is comparable to those at other schools they visited during the recruiting process.

They also are looking forward to getting started under Purnell, who caught their attention by winning the Atlantic-10 Tournament and earning a No. 4 seed for the NCAA Tournament.

“We're going to respect him right off the top when he comes,” Christie said. “Them having a good year last year, he's doing the right thing so he's winning, and that's what they wanted to bring here, so I guess they came out with a good decision.”

As the first black coach in a men's sport at Clemson, Purnell represents an important symbolic point for the program as well. The perception that black athletes aren't comfortable at Clemson because of its rural setting was enhanced in 20001 when football player Akil Smith described Clemson as “boring.” The school also was cited by the Division I Committee on Athletics Certification last August for a lack of minorities on its athletics staff. Now Purnell is embracing his role as the most high-profile black employee ever at Clemson.

“I think that's significant,” Purnell said. “Hopefully, by being in a high-profile position at this great university, it could help in the areas of unity, it could send a message that this is a great place for diversity, togetherness and all those kinds of things.”

That message on diversity should help the Tigers in recruiting. Phillips' promise of a commitment to basketball, punctuated with a big-time hire, also might sway recruits.

There still are troublesome signs for basketball at Clemson. The Tigers' hopes for an NIT bid this season were foiled by university administrators' refusal to change the construction schedule for Littlejohn, in large part because they want the arena ready for graduation in May.

Former Chicago Bulls and Iowa State coach Tim Floyd would not agree to terms with Clemson after he was the first coach to be offered the job by Phillips. But Phillips overcame that setback to land a winner who has turned around programs before.

Dayton was 7-20 in the first of Purnell's nine seasons but was 88-39 over the last four seasons. It may be a while before Ellis kisses Purnell's ring, but Purnell isn't willing to accept the perception that Clemson is doomed to failure in basketball.

“Terry Don is about building a broad-based athletic program with excellence across the board,” Purnell said. “And this is a tremendous basketball league, and for that reason I think Clemson should be and can be and hopefully will be a tremendous basketball program.”